Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scriptureby John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, for more than twenty years and is one of the leading spokespersons in the western world for an enlightened Christianity. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Harvard/i>
A controversial author brilliantly reclaims the Bible from the literal interpretation of fundamentalists.
John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, for more than twenty years and is one of the leading spokespersons in the western world for an enlightened Christianity. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Harvard University. His previous bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Living in SW, Liberating the Gospels, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die.
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Read an Excerpt
Sex Drove Me to the Bible
Sex drove me to the Bible!
This statement is literally true, but not in the sense that most would interpret it. In 1988 my book entitled Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality was published by Harper and Row. In that book I was led to question traditional religious attitudes and traditional religious definitions on a wide variety of sexual issues, from homosexuality to premarital living arrangements. There was an immediate outcry from conservative religious circles in defense of something they called biblical morality.
Proof Texting and Prejudice
This appeal to the Bible to justify and to sustain an attitude that was clearly passing away had a very familiar ring to me. I grew up in America's segregated South with its rich evangelical biblical heritage. Time after time I heard the Bible quoted to justify segregation. I was told that Ham, Noah's son, had looked on Noah in his nakedness, and for this sin he had been cursed to servitude and slavery along with all his progeny (Gen. 9:25-27). It did not occur to those quoting this Scripture to raise questions about what kind of God was assumed in this verse, or whether or not they could worship such a God. Since they could not identify themselves with those who were the victims of this cruelty, the God to whom they ascribed this victimizing power did not appear to them to be seriously compromised.
It also did not seem to matter that this corporate condemnation of millions of people to servitude because of their ancestor's indiscretionmight also contradict other parts of the sacred text. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, writes: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die" (Ezek. 18:2-4). The only concern of the one who quoted the texts in my early life was to maintain that person's prejudice, to enable that person to avoid having to change destructive attitudes.
I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the late 1960s, when independent Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell was just beginning his rise to national prominence. Intense racism was certainly in the air at that time, and Jerry Falwell played to these feelings as his popularity grew. To start a "Christian school" in that period of history was a popular response to the Supreme Court order to dismantle the segregated school system endemic to the South since the Civil War. Teachers in Falwell's school had to take an oath of conformity to biblical inerrancy, and by that same view of Scripture, Jerry Falwell could justify his emotional commitment to segregation, although, in fairness to Mr. Falwell, it needs to be said that he has moved away from these negative attitudes as the years have gone by.
It was in this period of history that the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, became a candidate for president of the United States and was supported by many southern fundamentalists. Maddox was a Georgia restaurateur who battled for his "constitutional right" to serve only a segregated public. He gave out ax handles at his restaurant as a hint of the way he thought those who wanted to desegregate public businesses might be discouraged from doing so.
With ease, many texts out of the Hebrew Scriptures could be quoted to justify the need for God's chosen people to keep themselves separate and apart from those judged to be unchosen, heathen, or evil. That was, and is, a major theme in the books of both Ezra and Nehemiah, for example (Ezra 10:12, 15; Neh. 13:1-3). Of course those texts could be countered by other texts to produce ambivalence or relativity in biblical truth, but fundamentalists could not tolerate this. Those whose religious security is rooted in a literal Bible do not want that security disturbed. They are not happy when facts challenge their biblical understanding or when nuances in the text are introduced or when they are forced to deal with either contradictions or changing insights. The Bible, as they understand it, shares in the permanence and certainty of God, convinces them that they are right, and justifies the enormous fear and even negativity that lie so close to the surface in fundamentalistic religion. For biblical literalists, there is always an enemy to be defeated in mortal combat.
Sometimes that enemy is Satan-the devil literalized and made very real and serving the primary purpose of removing responsibility from the one who has fallen into sin. Onetimepopular American evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, when caught in a NewOrleans motel with a prostitute, explained his behavior by just such an appeal to Satan. His evangelistic enterprises were so successful, he stated, that the devil was being hurled back into darkness by this white knight of a preacher. So the devil launched a counterattack and lured evangelist Swaggart into a trap and dealt a mortal blow to his soul-winning ministry. If the devil can ensnare a heroic figure like Swaggart, so the argument went, think what he (the devil is always male, witches are always female) can do to the lesser persons who are mere church members.
In evangelical circles, child discipline tends to be quite physical, both because children are thought to be "born in sin" and therefore evil and because the Book of Proverbs teaches parents that "he who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" (Prov. 13:24). One disobedient lad, facing corporal punishment in "the woodshed," is said to have argued for a suspended sentence by saying, "It wasn't my fault, father. The devil made me do it." To which the father replied, "Well son, I guess it is my duty to beat the devil out of you!" Blaming the devil is a popular but not always successful maneuver. It did not work for Mr. Swaggart.
Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at more than 500 other universities all over the world. His books, which have sold well over a million copies, include Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic; Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World; Eternal Life: A New Vision; Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He writes a weekly column on the web that reaches thousands of people all over the world. To join his online audience, go to www.JohnShelbySpong.com. He lives with his wife, Christine, in New Jersey.
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